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Algorithms Mol Biol. 2010 Feb 24;5:18. doi: 10.1186/1748-7188-5-18.

Robinson-Foulds supertrees.

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Blavatnik School of Computer Science, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv 69978, Israel.



Supertree methods synthesize collections of small phylogenetic trees with incomplete taxon overlap into comprehensive trees, or supertrees, that include all taxa found in the input trees. Supertree methods based on the well established Robinson-Foulds (RF) distance have the potential to build supertrees that retain much information from the input trees. Specifically, the RF supertree problem seeks a binary supertree that minimizes the sum of the RF distances from the supertree to the input trees. Thus, an RF supertree is a supertree that is consistent with the largest number of clusters (or clades) from the input trees.


We introduce efficient, local search based, hill-climbing heuristics for the intrinsically hard RF supertree problem on rooted trees. These heuristics use novel non-trivial algorithms for the SPR and TBR local search problems which improve on the time complexity of the best known (naïve) solutions by a factor of Theta(n) and Theta(n2) respectively (where n is the number of taxa, or leaves, in the supertree). We use an implementation of our new algorithms to examine the performance of the RF supertree method and compare it to matrix representation with parsimony (MRP) and the triplet supertree method using four supertree data sets. Not only did our RF heuristic provide fast estimates of RF supertrees in all data sets, but the RF supertrees also retained more of the information from the input trees (based on the RF distance) than the other supertree methods.


Our heuristics for the RF supertree problem, based on our new local search algorithms, make it possible for the first time to estimate large supertrees by directly optimizing the RF distance from rooted input trees to the supertrees. This provides a new and fast method to build accurate supertrees. RF supertrees may also be useful for estimating majority-rule(-) supertrees, which are a generalization of majority-rule consensus trees.

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